Our fearless adventurer Christian Cummins is tempted out of his comfort zone at Area 47, where your inner child rules the roost
It was 9:32 in the morning in a remote valley in Tyrol, when I jumped off the bridge. There was a moment of intense acceleration as I fell, a sudden lurch to the stomach – and then surging relief followed by whoops of joy as I swung back up away from the valley floor, over a small hut, then over the foaming river Ötztaler Ache and back again. This is how you make your entrance into Area 47, the “Ultimate Outdoor Playground” in the Alps.
The spectacularly steep-sided Ötztal recently hosted the filming of the latest action-tastic James Bond adventure, Spectre, but, I thought proudly as I dangled above the valley, Daniel Craig is not the only Englishman prepared for a little derring-do in these rugged mountains! From the regal comfort of a flying-fox zip-line, I’d already surveyed the vast arena of adventure sports. From this bird’s-eye view, I’d been able to peruse the two hectare area for water sports sparkling in the morning sun, as well as silver lines of water flanked by forest, where you’ll find top-notch rafting and canyoning.
Of blobs and cannonballs
Before my bravado gets the better of me, I should concede that my role in both these gravity-defying early morning stunts had been minimal and, indeed, rather passive. The only active part was hopping sideways off a 27m-high platform, while my expert guides Carina and Marie controlled everything else with an intricate system of rope pulleys and carabiners.
“So my fate is entirely in your hands?” I’d asked Marie, a cheery north German. “I have to trust you, right? Did you sleep well? Have you had a good breakfast?”
“I had a very nice coffee,” she reassured me, and then pointed strictly at the wooden platform. “Now, off you jump.”
It felt like talking to Captain Blackbeard, and I was never one to argue with a pirate. So, obediently, I jumped, then screamed a brief and very manly scream before getting the very manly giggles as a I swung about aimlessly, my dignity at least 50 percent intact, while I waited for Carina and Marie to expertly lower me to the ground.
There is, I believe, a deep human need to do something silly once in a while, particularly in these most earnest of years, and Area 47, so named because it lies on the 47th parallel, offers plenty of opportunities to rediscover your inner child for a few hours or even days. There are 35 activities on offer, and later in the day, I found myself dangling under the bridge swinging from suspended logs, like a live version of a Super Mario adventure. But as a personal highlight, I’d like to pick out the aquatic pastime of “blobbing.” It’s a “team sport” where one teammate, wearing a helmet and a life jacket, leaps off a platform on to a vast white and red cushion, thus, via the impact, propelling the other teammate sitting on the edge of the cushion high into the air and into the watery embrace of a natural swimming pool. Charlie Chaplin would have approved.
If that sounds too sensible, why not try lying in an uptilted half tube and allowing yourself to be propelled by a sudden and fierce jet of water into the pool? The name of this absurd activity? You guessed it, it’s “cannonball.”
In addition to this charming nonsense, the Area 47 adventure park also hosts more serious and challenging adventure sports and provides a regular training ground for the elite athletes from the Red Bull stable. There’s a towering cliff-diving training facility, open only to true experts, and a freestyle water ramp where Europe’s top freeskiers practice their complicated bodily rotations during the snowless summer months. There’s symbiosis here. The athletes hone their skills at these state-of-the-art facilities and their presence adds glamor for those holidaymakers who dream of emulating their heroes.
My next stop was the newest addition to the park. Opened in May this year, and fed by cool spring water, Area 47 now hosts western Austria’s first wakeboarding center – a two-hectare oval artificial lake, which is circumnavigated by a 420m lift. This drags water-skiers and wake boarders at a brisk speed through a obstacle course littered with kickers and boxes.
I watched for a while from the comfort of the rooftop Wake Café overlooking the lake, but then, seeing the spray of the speeding boarders, I itched to have a go myself. Jonas, the sun-kissed guru at the rental shop, was very enthusiastic about my chances. He sent me out with a “knee-board”, promising it was the first stepping stone to wakeboard proficiency.
It was not. An unmitigated disaster was more accurate and after two humiliating dunkings I swam back to shore to collect some water skis. These made much more sense to me, as long as I adopted the unedifying “squatting on the toilet” position. Lap after lap, I hung on for dear life, gazing at the sheer grey cliff faces of the adjacent lower Inn Valley, probably gaining few admirers among the aficionados, but having bucketloads of fun.
Reinventing the mountains
There will be those who disparage such a playground in the Alps – a ten-million-dollar investment project with high-volume energy-drink branding, screams and shouts, and music blaring out of loudspeakers. It’s a long way from the innocent calm of Heidi’s Alm.
But Area 47’s Susanne Schilcher argues that the park was designed with the utmost respect for nature. The accommodation – simple but comfortable – is made from local wood and even the wakeboarding lake was designed with the idea that if and when the park should disappear, all traces can be extinguished. “It was a lot more expensive this way,” says Schilcher, “but this is important to us.”
I’d argue something else too. The countryside has to constantly reinvent itself. While we respect nature we must also allow people to live and work in the region where they grow up. Area 47 employs extreme-sports experts from places as far-flung as Costa Rica or Nicaragua but also plenty of locals of the Ötz valley. With the trend of climate change meaning that the Alps’ money-spinning winters are getting perilously shorter while summers grow longer, Area 47, with its campsite, lodges, gastronomy and guiding opportunities, has given employment and a buzz of energy to the local youth. And that, it seems to me, is a good thing.